Saturday 18 August 2018

Daily grind lies beneath the glamour of professional life

Postcard from South Africa: Touring sounds exciting but there's plenty of time-killing to be done

Leinster rubbed shoulders with South African cricketing star Hashim Amla who shared the same hotel in Bloemfontein. Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Leinster rubbed shoulders with South African cricketing star Hashim Amla who shared the same hotel in Bloemfontein. Photo by Kieran Galvin/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

It turned out the man at the next table at breakfast on Friday was kind of a big deal.

He was a sportsman, that much was for sure, his and his team-mates' Cape Cobras kit gave that much away. Far too slight to be a rugby player, a quick Google revealed that they were a cricket side in town to take on the Bloemfontein Knights.

The fella with the beard, he was Hashim Amla, who it turns out is one of the finest cricketers of his generation and after he polished off his muesli he headed across the road to the Mangaung Oval and scored a century to secure an unlikely draw in front of a couple of hundred people.

Professional sport may appear glamorous and the rewards are rich and varied, but there is much about the day-to-day that doesn't really appeal.

A few of Leinster's tourists have a cricketing background and would have recognised the star in their midst, but in general the two squads spent a night in the same hotel and then moved on with their lives like ships in the night.

Awkward

Staying at the team hotel is largely to be avoided when covering a team on tour, there's only so many awkward lift conversations anyone wants to have, but there are certain cities where it's difficult to avoid and Bloemfontein is one of those.

Leinster's eventful mini-tour wound down on the South African Highveld with a defeat to the Cheetahs and they made their long journey home in dribs and drabs over the last 24 hours, with some only arriving this morning. Spending some time in the vicinity of the squad and management in the past few days was a reminder of just how much of a grind the life of a professional sportsman can be away from the bright lights.

No one was complaining, nor inviting sympathy, during the 12-day trip; for many it was their first time in this part of the world, but observing this world of team rooms, time-killing, rigorous schedules and hanging around hotel lobbies just doesn't evoke the glamour people associate with the job.

Players spoke of the benefits of living in each other's pockets for an extended period in a team-building sense, but they must be glad to be back in their own beds after almost two weeks sharing a twin room and living out of kit-bags.

Each weekend, players pop up in a different location to entertain us on the television but in between there is plenty of mundanity to endure. The majority of the Leinster squad, and their travelling press pack of one, took seven flights and stayed in four different hotels over the course of 12 nights. Cian Healy was on eight aeroplanes, Isa Nacewa and Jamison Gibson-Park trumped everyone with 10.

That's a lot of time hanging around airports, waiting.

As they passed the time in Bloemfontein's tiny airport on Saturday, the players were slumped across the departures lounge; a large group were raucously playing a card game, others had their heads buried in books and the rest were on their phones and laptops.

Ready for home, but home was a long way away.

It beats working for a living, says you, and they wouldn't swap it. When it comes to the big days at the end of the season, they'll reflect on their character building they put together in South Africa. But the season is long and for all the full houses there are plenty of weeks like this, traipsing around hotels and airports waiting for match-day.

They enjoyed the sunshine by the pool in Johannesburg and celebrated their win with a night out in Port Elizabeth. During their four-night stay in the beautiful city of Cape Town, they were able to get out and explore the Waterfront and took a trip on the cable car up Table Mountain to take in the views.

Recovering

But those excursions were the exception and they were here to do a job. Most of their time was spent recovering from training and preparing for the games. The rest was about killing the hours.

By and large, Leinster passed through South Africa without anyone really noticing locally.

Spoiled for choice with top-class cricket and rugby on within walking distance of one another, the people of Bloemfontein by and large chose to stay at home.

The country is in recession and the local economy is suffering, meaning discretionary spending is being kept to a minimum and with the games being broadcast live on television, most fans opted for that option.

Still, the two teams have to get there to perform for the cameras even if takes a major logistical operation and plenty of time to get one of them there for show time.

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